The Baltimore Ravens went 10-6 during the regular season before sweeping through the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl title over San Francisco. The 49ers posted an 11-4-1 mark before winning the NFC thanks to postseason victories over Green Bay and Atlanta.
Baltimore's regular season slate was perfectly average, neither difficult nor easy. San Francisco played the fifth easiest schedule in the conference. This is typical of successful teams, playing weak opponents fosters winning.
During the last four seasons, only the Tim Tebow led 2011 Broncos had one of the three toughest schedules in their conference and qualified for the playoffs. Denver's 8-8 record was good enough to win the AFC West that year. Interestingly, the other five playoff teams joining Denver played five of the six easiest schedules in the conference. On the NFC side, the teams with the three easiest slates had the three best records in the conference.
Baltimore and San Francisco should be thankful for the way the schedule broke down. No team in either conference this year made the playoffs with any of the six most difficult schedules. In other words, 12 out of 32 teams were finished before the opening kickoff of the season. Of the 12, only the Giants at 9-7 had a winning record.
This trend goes back to the start of the start of the 2009 season. New Orleans won the title that year after playing the easiest regular season schedule in the NFC. The teams with the four softest slates each qualified for the NFC playoffs. On the AFC side the teams with three of the worst four schedules made the playoffs including Super Bowl representative Indianapolis who went 14-2 thanks to the second cushiest schedule in the conference. The teams with the eight most difficult schedules in the NFC, and four toughest in the AFC failed to qualify for postseason play.
In 2010 if you had one of the seven most daunting AFC schedules, there was not postseason in your future. The three most difficult roads to hoe left you short of the playoffs in the NFC. Meanwhile, if your schedule was conducive to winning, more than half the teams with mediocre or average schedules reached the playoffs
If 2012 results are an indication, things will be difficult for Carolina, Detroit, and New Orleans who play the most difficult schedules in the NFC next year. On the AFC side, Baltimore, Miami, and Cincinnati will be forced to turn the tide on history. It is good news for Dallas, the Giants and Philadelphia who play the easiest NFC slates. Denver, San Diego and Indianapolis have the best schedules to work worth in the AFC.
Talent is good, a break in the schedule might be even better.